Friday, 15 January 2016

Department S (1969)

I believe I've said before that writing mystery shows is pretty tough.  You've got to come up with a crime that's convoluted enough the solution is not immediately obvious when the show starts, but simple enough that the audience can follow along ... and then you have to set it up, stage the investigation, and hit a satisfying conclusion all in the space of 45 minutes.  Oh, and if you could work in some character stuff in the process, all the better.

It's probably not surprising therefore that a lot of shows rely on a bit of prestidigitation to help them along: either by introducing some means of magical mystery-solving (Holmesian "logic" in any Sherlock Holmes adaptation, forensic science in any brand of CSI) or by distracting you with other things.  For an example of the latter, consider Castle, which has the romance between the leads, a solid dose of humour, and the charisma of its supporting cast, to make up for any deficiencies in the mystery of the week.

Department S goes for a little of both strategies.  On the one hand we have the uncannily accurate deductive leaps made by Jason King (he of the mustache, above).  On the other we have the gimmick that the mysteries they face are inevitably peculiar.  "Why would someone break into a morgue and shoot a corpse?" or "Why would someone steal a crate of soup cans ... and then dump all the cans?" being typical examples.

Alas, neither of these devices really work that well.  In fact, the latter one often actively detracts from the show, as the answers to the questions are almost never as interesting as the questions themselves, which kind of inevitably leads to disappointment.  There are some reasonably fun episodes - the soup can one is pretty good, and there's one involving chemical weapons which I also liked - but more often than not you're left with the feeling that if the criminals / Soviet agents responsible for the mystery had simply chosen a less bizarre method of completing their objective, they'd have had a much greater chance of success.

The show is also let down to some extent by the cheapness with which it was made.  There's an unintentionally hysterical scene where two characters are "jogging", for instance, and it is painfully clear they're running on the spot in front of a green screen.  But if the hit vs miss ratio of the mysteries were better, I could forgive stuff like that.

If you're looking for groovy 60s detectives, I suggest you stick with Steed and Mrs Peel, instead.

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